As this is being written, Trump’s travel ban remains suspended by the courts. The poor wording and implementation of the ban indicates that amateurs are now in charge. Or, alternatively, that Trump’s strategists are intentionally trying to exhaust the opposition. As such, either the ban has been a setback for Trump or a small victory.
While the actual experts on national security (from both parties) have generally expressed opposition to the Trump ban, Trump’s surrogates and some Republican politicians have endeavored to defend it. The fountain of falsehoods, Kellyanne Conway, has been extremely active in defense of the ban. Her zeal in its defense has led her to uncover terrorist attacks beyond our own reality, such as the Bowling Green Massacre that occurred in some other timeline. In that alternative timeline, the Trump ban might be effectively addressing a real problem; but not in the actual world.
More reasonable defenders of the ban endeavor to use at least some facts from this world when making their case. For example, Republican representative Mike Johnson recently defended the ban by making reference to a report by Fordham Law School’s Center on National Security. He claimed that “They determined that nearly 20 percent of alleged facilitators in ISIS prosecutions, in our country, do involve refugees and asylees. I mean, those kinds of facts are not as widely publicized, but they should be. I think the American people have a right to know that.” This approach employs four rather effective rhetorical techniques which I will address in reverse order of use.
By saying “the American people have a right to know”, Johnson seems to be employing innuendo to suggest that the rights of Americans are being violated—that is, there is some sort of conspiracy against the American people afoot. This conspiracy is, of course, that the (presumably liberal) media is not publicizing certain facts. This rhetorical tool is rather clever, for it not only suggests the media is up to something nefarious, but that there are secret facts out there that support the ban. At the very least, this can incline people to think that there are other facts backing Trump that are being intentionally kept secret. This can make people more vulnerable to untrue claims purporting to offer such facts.
Johnson’s lead techniques are, coincidentally enough, rhetorical methods I recently covered in my critical thinking class. One technique is what is often called a “weasler” in which a person protects a claim by weakening it. In this case, the weasel word is “nearly.” If Johnson were called on the correct percentage, which is 18%, he can reply that 18% is nearly 20%, which is true. However, “nearly 20%” certainly creates the impression that it is more than 18%, which is misleading. Why not just say “18%”? Since the exaggeration is relatively small, it does not qualify as hyperbole. Naturally, a reasonable reply would be that this is nitpicking— “nearly 20%” is close enough to “18%” and Johnson might have simply failed to recall the exact number during the interview. This is certainly a fair point.
Another technique involves presenting numerical claims without proper context, thus creating a misleading impression. In this case, Johnson claims, correctly, that “nearly 20 percent of alleged facilitators in ISIS prosecutions, in our country, do involve refugees and asylees.” The main problem is that no context is given for the “nearly 20%.” Without context, one does not know whether this is a significant matter or not. For example, if I claimed that sales of one of my books increased 20% last year, then you would have no idea how significant my book sales were. If I sold 10 of those books in 2015 and 12 in 2016, then my sales did increase 20%, but my sales would be utterly insignificant in the context of book sales.
In the case of the facilitators Johnson mentioned, the Fordham report includes 19 facilitators and 3 of these (18%) were as Johnson described. So, of the thousands of refugees and asylum seekers the United States took in, there have been three people who were involved in this facilitation. This mostly involved encouraging people to go overseas to fight—these three people were (obviously) not involved in terrorist attacks in the United States. Such a microscopic threat level does not justify the travel ban under any rational threat assessment and response analysis.
The United States does, of course, face some danger from terrorist attacks. However, the most likely source of these attacks is from US born citizens. While the threat from foreigners is not zero, an American is 253 times more likely to be a victim of a “normal” homicide rather than killed in a foreigner engaged in a terrorist attack in the United States. And the odds of being the victim of a homicide are very low. As such, trying to justify the ban with accurate information is all but impossible, which presumably explains why the Republicans are resorting to lies and rhetoric.
While there are clear political advantages to stoking the fear of ill-informed Americans, there are plenty of real problems that Trump and the Republicans could be addressing—responsible leaders would be focusing on these problems, rather than weaving fictions and feeding unfounded fears.
Trump recently signed an executive order described, perhaps incorrectly, as a “travel ban.” The gist of the order is that all refugees are banned from entering the United States for 120 days and immigrants from seven nations are banned for three months. These nations, which are predominantly Muslim, are Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Yemen and Somalia.
As should be expected from Trump’s administration, the order seemed to not have been checked by the Justice Department and was sprung on Homeland Security with little in the way of guidance. The predictable result was confusion in the real world and bragging in the Trump world. As should also be expected in almost anything involving Trump, a flurry of lawsuits has swept the land. Here in Tallahassee, foreign students from the impacted countries have been encouraged to not leave the country—for they might not be able to return. While some see the order as a disaster, there are those that argue in its favor. These arguments are certainly worth considering.
One argument in favor of the order is the democracy argument. If voting for a candidate indicates general support of that person’s positions and proposals, the fact that Trump ran on the Muslim ban and won would indicate that the people support this order. As such, Trump is right to have signed the order: he is making good on what he promised and acting in accord with majority rule.
One response to this, laying aside Trump’s lie to the contrary, is that he lost the popular vote by a large margin. Assuming that voting indicates general support, then the majority did not want the Muslim ban that Trump proposed and hence his executive order does not reflect the will of the people.
It can be countered that while Trump does not have majority support, he obviously won the election and thus has the legal right to issue the executive order while lacking a popular mandate or even majority support. This is obviously true; although the legality of the order has been questioned. What is rather more interesting is whether the ban can be rationally and morally justified.
In defending the executive order, Trump used the examples of 9/11, the San Bernardino attack and the Orlando murders. While an argument by example is a standard inductive argument, a strong one requires that the examples fit what they are supposed to support. The fundamental problem with these examples is that those engaged in the attacks came from countries not covered by the ban. As such, Trump is defending his ban on specific countries by using examples of attacks by people from countries that are not being banned, which is not only bad logic but rather odd. While this argument by example approach fails, defenders can avail themselves of a utilitarian argument.
The gist of this argument is that the restrictions on entry into the United States will create more good than bad. In a utilitarian argument, the usual approach is to weigh the harms and benefits to those impacted. If the harms outweigh the benefits, then the order would be morally wrong. If the opposite holds, then it would be morally acceptable.
One matter of concern is in regards to refugees. Despite fictional narratives to the contrary, refugees are already subject to “extreme vetting” and the probability of a terrorist entering the country thus way is extremely low because of the review process and the time involved. For terrorists, sneaking in as a refugee is thus a very poor option. This is not to say the system is flawless, but expecting a perfect system would be unreasonable and there is always a non-zero chance that someone will slip through.
Balanced against this is the potential harm to refugees who will be forced to remain in danger or to dwell outside of the state system. The very real and likely risk to refugees would seem to outweigh the incredibly slight possibility of harm to Americans. As such, the ban would be morally wrong.
Another area of concern is non-refugee terrorists slipping into the United States. As noted above, no terrorist from the banned countries has been involved on an attack on American soil. Instead, the terrorists have come from countries, like Saudi Arabia, that are not subject to the ban. The ban has been creating significant harms to people from these countries who had the legal right to be here and who have been subject to evaluation, such as green card holders. As noted above, there are students here in Tallahassee who cannot leave the United States without being unable to return, despite presenting no real risk. As such, the ban harms people while offering almost zero increase in safety, which makes it morally unacceptable.
An alternative approach is to engage in moral nationalism and only consider the harms and benefits to Americans. This, for the lack of a better name, could be called America First Utilitarianism. On the positive side, the ban provides Americans with an increase in security that is marginally more than zero. On the minus side, the opportunities and benefits to Americans will be lost by banning such people. There is also the moral harm to Americans in refusing aid to those in need (this should be especially harmful to Christians. There are also the propaganda gains for terrorist groups. This executive order plays into the terrorist narrative that it is the West against Islam rather than civilization against terrorism. This can grant these terrorists the gift of vindication and boost their recruiting efforts, to the detriment of Americans. This narrative can also damage the relationship between the United States and Muslim allies, which will make America less safe. It is thus no shock that people who understand national security have consistently condemned this order as making America less safe. While Trump seems to believe that his brain is the only adviser he needs, I will defer to the experts in the field of national security on this matter.
A rather odd fact about this narrative is that many who push it are inconsistent in their fiction: they do not seem to regard, for example, the predominantly Muslim nations of Saudi Arabia and Turkey as terrorist threats. But perhaps this is because of the oil of Saudi Arabia and the strategic value of Turkey.
As a final argument, it can be contended that the narrative and executive order benefit Trump and some other politicians. As such, if they matter more than everyone else, then the order is a good thing. However, if the rest of us matter, then the executive order is morally wrong because it creates far more harm than good.